Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Austin Cindric Shocks Everyone at Gateway

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

If Austin Cindric wasn’t on your list before the race, he is now. Cindric won the Enjoy Illinois 300 at WWT Raceway on Sunday, leading three times for 53 laps, including the final two.

The win came as a bit of a surprise even to Cindric. His teammate Ryan Blaney had the lead but had been battling Christopher Bell door-to-door for most of the final 25 laps of the race. That was until Bell had a bad shift which caused him engine issues.

Blaney maintained a solid lead over Cindric as the field came to the white flag … and then ran out of fuel.

Cindric, who had run a very good race, suddenly found himself in the lead with a lap to go, and he took the win over Denny Hamlin for his second career victory.

Cindric’s win was a bit of a surprise, but a good finish should not have been. He had top fives in both opening stages and his 53 laps led were a career-best. 

See also
Austin Cindric Wins at Gateway

And don’t forget Carson Hocevar. The rookie had his best Cup finish to date, finishing eighth. Hocevar also scored a couple of stage points, finishing the second segment in eighth. His finish is his second top 10 of 2024 and the third for Spire Motorsports, matching the team’s 2023 mark after just 15 races.

What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

Talk all week has been about Kyle Larson and whether NASCAR would issue the 2021 champion a playoff waiver for missing the Coca-Cola 600 after the Indianapolis 500, in which Larson also competed, was delayed by weather. Larson arrived in Charlotte with plenty of laps left to get into his No. 5 car and not need the waiver, but weather in Charlotte ended that race before Larson could turn a lap.

Still, NASCAR has rarely denied a waiver, so it was expected that Larson would get his and that would be that, but NASCAR still has not issued a decision.

So, what is NASCAR waiting for?

Well, the longer it waits to make a decision, the more people will talk about it. It certainly gets NASCAR plenty of attention in the short term. People are talking about it after all.

But delaying the decision is also giving fans an opportunity to look closer at the inconsistency. The sanctioning body could also be using Larson as an example to team owners and making Rick Hendrick sweat a bit. Making Hendrick sweat is something NASCAR has enjoyed over the years, and denying the waiver would certainly give it some leverage and give teams and sponsors pause … even though in the long run it would be detrimental.

At this point, the holdout seems more like attention-seeking and testing the waters about a potential denial before actually doing it than anything else. Just make the call already.

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Michael McDowell was strong early, leading the first 40 laps and finishing second in the first stage. From there, though, the No. 34 team struggled, slipping to the back half of the field. McDowell was in the top five late stretching fuel but had to pit and wound up 25th. 

Last week’s winner Bell started fourth and battled with McDowell for the lead throughout the first stage before taking both that segment and stage two. Differing strategies in the final stage showcased Bell’s speed, but his engine issue ended his bid as Bell dropped back to seventh at the checkers, pushed by teammate Martin Truex Jr. on the straights to get there.

Point leader Denny Hamlin started sixth, and while he never quite had a winning car, he had one good enough to move into good position at the end, finishing second to Cindric after teammate Bell’s issues. 

Defending race winner Kyle Busch and his team used pit strategy to lead 15 laps at the beginning of stage two. He and Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon both had some speed on Sunday (Dillon finished sixth), but Busch tangled with Larson on lap 140 and spun into the wall hard enough to end his day early and in 35th.

When… was the moment of truth?

This week’s race really underscored the importance of staying out of trouble and of being in position, even without the fastest car, to capitalize on what happens on the track.

Bell had the best car, but a bad shift cost him a chance to win as he had to nurse the engine home. Blaney had the second-best car and ran out of fuel coming to the white flag. And that left Cindric, who had been steady all day, in that perfect position to take the win.

See also
Austin Cindric Takes Advantage As Ryan Blaney's Misfortune Continues

Did he get a little lucky? Sure. But he also got the most he could out of his car, worked his way into what would have been a great finish regardless, and won the race. It isn’t always going to be about speed. Sometimes it’s just about running your race and letting it come to you.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

The Cup Series heads west, all the way to Sonoma Raceway. A year ago, Truex drove to his third Sonoma win in the last five races and fourth overall. Truex may not be the first name fans think of when they talk about road course aces, but Truex certainly has Sonoma figured out; only Jeff Gordon has more wins at the track than Truex.

Keep an eye on Truex this time around for sure. He doesn’t have a win in 2024, and as the playoffs loom closer, the pressure is on. He makes Sonoma, a tough course with few passing zones, look easy when he has a winning car. 

You’ll likely see a couple of road specialists in this one, such as Repco Supercars Championship star Will Brown, will make his Cup debut in a third RCR car.

How… many drivers who won in 2023 are winless so far in 2024?

So far? Most of them. 2013 featured 15 different winners, and so far, just five have won this year (Hamlin, Larson, Bell, Reddick and Byron). 2024 also features four winners — Daniel Suarez, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski in addition to Cindric — who didn’t win last year.

Two of last year’s winners, Shane van Gisbergen and AJ Allmendinger, aren’t competing full-time this season.

That leaves eight drivers with 2023 trophies who have yet to take one home in 2024: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Busch, Joey Logano, Truex, Blaney, Ross Chastain, Chris Buescher and McDowell.

There’s still time for several more drivers to put their names on the winners’ list before the playoffs start in September, but the pressure ratchets up from here on out to find the W.

About the author

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Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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